A wave of generational dissonance washed over the children born into a desolate hellscape inherited from the greedy hypocrites who birthed and neglected them. Yeah, I’m talking about the ‘90s, when every work of art was tinged with a grungy, energetic nihilism. The spiritual angst that could be felt radiating from youth around the world was a vibe that effortlessly blended into the film noir of the time, and—especially towards the end of the millennium—the clash between disaffected youth and their elders was a prominent theme in independent films coming out of Japan.
This is a niche corner I’ve been lingering in since J. David Osborne and I started an extreme Japanese cinema podcast this year called Agitator. Below are some personal favorite films revolving around Japan’s own Generation Numb.
Bullet Ballet (1998) - Shinya Tsukamoto - There are parallel worlds of existential dread going on in this film about a middle-aged corporate man named Godo (Shinya Tsukamoto) who is trying to obtain a gun to kill himself with after his girlfriend commits suicide. But thanks to his naivety and blind desperation, a series of increasingly hilarious misfortunes (including his being sold a water pistol for the price of a car) leads the man to becoming entangled with a gang of young street punks. Chisato (Kirina Mano), a young woman who likes to stand deathly close to passing trains, is the standout character amongst the street punks. Her reckless reaching out towards death mirrors and challenges Godo’s own pursuit of self-sabotage, and the deeper Godo becomes integrated with the gang, the more he mellows out on the whole suicide mission thing. It is a film as much about the contrast between generations as it is about nihilism and grief, a contrast that is visually represented in a grainy, inky monochrome.
Pornostar (1998) - Toshiaki Toyoda - You don’t find a character more detached than Arano (Chihara Junia), an autistic young man with no back story who carries a bag full of knives to murder Yakuza members with. The shoegaze soundtrack, JNCOs and spaghetti straps, and the skateboarding throughout the film add to the specific time-stamped brand of youthful nihilism on display here. Aesthetically, it’s a nostalgia trip, but the unhinged bitterness towards a generation that soaked up all resources with blatant disregard for their effect on the youth is a vibe still relevant today.
Ley Lines (1999) - Takashi Miike - Simultaneously the most bright-eyed and the most tragic film on this list is Takashi Miike’s finale to his thematically connected Black Society Trilogy, in which a trio of young Chinese immigrants navigate the underworld of Shinjuku, Tokyo after their dreams for a better life in the city are quickly shot to shit. Less of a globally recognizable feeling, but all the more intimate, the restlessness bred in the characters of Ley Lines is one of assimilation, of fitting into a world that automatically rejects you. So I guess I take that back, there are definitely relatable vibes here as well.
Fuck old people.